Mindless behaviour: How to skip to the front of a queue

If there’s one thing us Brits are good at, it’s queuing.  We love it.  One day I want to get a few people and form a fake queue, leading directly to a brick wall, and see how many people we can get to join the queue.  I predict that this would work, and we could actually get a load of random people lining up to a wall.  I think they’d assume it was a queue to an ATM, and would not think to check whether there actually is one there or not.  It’s mindless faith that since a line of people leading to a wall has been for an ATM in the past, it probably will now.  And it’s this mindless faith that you can exploit to skip the line.

Ellen Langer, Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz carried out a famous study in 1978 to see if they could get people to let them go first to use a photocopier.  You might recognise Ellen Langer‘s name, I mentioned another of her studies in the priming article, where she found a way to reduce the biological age of a group of elderly participants.  In this study, the researchers tried three different approaches to getting people to let them go first.  They also told people they had either 5 or 20 copies to make, to help them discover which method was most effective.  Here are the methods they tried:

  1. Request Only “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the xerox machine?”
  2. Placebo Information “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
  3. Real Information “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

So a third of the time they just asked to skip the line, a third of the time they gave an irrelevant reason (of course they had to make copies.  What else do you use a xerox machine for?), and a third of the time they actually gave a good reason. And they tried all three methods while asking to make five copies, and again when asking to make 20 copies.

Here are the results:


When you’re only asking a small favour, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you give a good reason or an arbitrary one – compliance is the same either way!  When you’re asking a big favour though, you do need to give a valid reason – if you give an arbitrary one, people don’t just mindlessly go along with it anymore.

What’s going on?

Over the years, many people have asked us for favours.  So many, in fact, that we’re very familiar with the general structure of a request; people ask for a favour, and then give a reason.  Countless repetition of this structure has made a rule in our minds, it goes something like this:

Favour X + Reason Y = Comply

But it’s not quite this simple – there are extra rules.  For example, when X is small, we can ignore Y – we’ve done so many small favours for good reasons that haven’t inconvenienced us too much in the past, that we probably won’t be inconvenienced now.  So why spend time and energy firing up our thinking processes? Why bother with the confrontation?  Overall it serves us better just to comply.

In other words, when the stakes are low, the mind will take the mental shortcut.

“Sometimes people don’t pay attention to the information they are receiving; only the the structure of it”

When X is large, however – when someone wants a big favour – this changes the game a little.  Perhaps now, doing the favour will be a bigger burden than not doing it.  So the brain kick-starts our deliberate thinking processes: “Consciousness, wake up! We need some help here!”  Now you need to pay attention to the incoming information, now you care what Y is, and if someone’s asking for a big favour without a good reason, you’re likely to turn them down.

Two other studies are described in the paper, which show a similar effect happening with written communication. People respond to short questionnaires, even when they are sent to random people, with no letterhead and no justification, just a request for people to fill out the form and send it back.  People just do it – and they are more likely to do it if they have more experience with correspondence, (for example if they work in institutions where this sort of communication is common) because they have created compliance rules for written communication.


The point to take from this study is that when making a request, remember to back up it up with a reason (“Can you do X because Y”).  If it’s a small request, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a good reason “Come to the table because it’s time for dinner” should work as well as “Come to the table because this food looks delicious”; unless it would be seen as a big request (everyone is glued to the TV, for example).

To skip a queue, just politely ask if you can, and give a reason.  Bear in mind that this study was done with a queue of one, so it may not work with larger queues where there’s social pressure from the people behind your ‘persuadee’ not to let you in.  But at the cash point you could try “Excuse me, can I use the ATM because I’m in a rush?”, at the nightclub you could try “Excuse me, can I go in first, because I need to find my friends”, and you already know how to skip the photocopier queue.  Play around with this and see what happens.  Don’t get carried away though or you’ll get in trouble (eg., “give me all your money because I have a gun!”).

Sometimes people don’t pay attention to the information they are receiving; only the the structure of it.  If you can fit your request inside a structure that people are used to complying with, there’s a good chance that they’ll mindlessly comply with your request too.  Remember also to be more mindful yourself, and become aware of when you are habitually going through the motions.  I’m not saying to think every little thing through in full detail, that sounds exhausting.  But at the very least, make sure the ATM queue leads to a real machine and not just a brick wall. 🙂

Recommended Reading:


Langer, E., Blank, A., & Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of “Placebic” Information in Interpersonal Interaction.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), 635-642.

Chart made with http://onlinecharttool.com/


  • Warren Davies says:

    By the way – this is my 50th post!

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